Aussies dominate yet again

S. DINAKAR

LIKE a masala Bollywood flick, it was a cricketing year that had all the ingredients that make for a blockbuster. Triumphs and setbacks, moments of glory and times of anguish... 2002 was indeed eventful, action-packed, and there was no dearth of drama.

Members of the Australian team (from left), Shane Warne, captain Steve Waugh, Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, acknowledge the cheers of the crowd as they leave the field after defeating England in the second Ashes Test at the Adelaide Oval. The Aussies continued to rule the cricketing world during the year. Warne spun the ball viciously and captured 67 wickets from 10 Tests.

The Australians continued to rule the cricketing world in Tests, and given the array of match-winners down under, this was hardly a surprise.

Steve Waugh's side clinched yet another Ashes series, grabbing a winning 3-0 lead at home against the outplayed Englishmen, blanked Pakistan in a series spread over two neutral venues, Colombo and Sharjah, and early in the year, brushed aside the challenge from the South Africans in back-to-back series, home and away.

The Aussies combine wonderfully well as a unit, and have so many match-winners, so many men who can make a difference. At the top of the order, the big-made Mathew Hayden had another big year. Indeed, it was a familiar sight, Hayden raising his bat and arms in triumph, drawing the sign of the cross, his pleasant face brightened by a smile.

At the conclusion of the third Test against England, Hayden had a whopping 1057 runs in 10 matches at a stunning 75.50. Things just appear to be getting better and better for this affable Australian as he goes about destroying the attacks of the world.

The star performer for England was opening batsman Michael Vaughan, who gathered a remarkable 1325 runs in 13 Tests at 60.23.

A late developer in the sense that runs started flowing from his blade only after years of struggle and frustration, he really is making up for lost time, launching into the bowling with that flourishing back-lift of his, and sending the ball to the distant corners of the ground.

And he's made runs everywhere, on the seaming and bouncing surfaces down under and in South Africa, on a turning pitch at Colombo's P. Saravanamuttu Stadium, and in Sharjah, where there was help for both pacemen and spinners.

If Hayden fired with the willow, the form of Ricky Ponting, the captain of the Aussie one-day squad, was no less brilliant. During the same period, the middle-order batsman made 1013 runs in 10 Tests at an equally impressive 77.92.

He is the kind of player who can quickly unsettle a bowler with his wide range of strokes and lovely use of his feet. Ponting is a naturally fluent batsman against both pace and spin, and this year, his more judicious shot-selection has seen him convert good starts into big scores.

During the English summer, Rahul Dravid became the second quickest Indian after Sunil Gavaskar to reach the 5000-run mark in Tests.

Damien Martyn got runs and got them in style, while Steve Waugh's hundred in the third Test of the series, in Sharjah, once again revealed that his instinct to battle it out, against all odds, was intact.

Steve Waugh lost both his ODI captaincy and place in the Australian one-day squad. And a lack of consistency with the willow in Tests saw him coming under fire, yet he marches on, as a magnificent warrior and a leader of men.

His twin brother Mark bid adieu to international cricket. Like Steve, Mark found himself dumped from the one-day squad, and after failing in the Test series against Pakistan and being dropped from the side — the Aussie selectors provided him one final chance — decided to bow out gracefully.

He will go down as a gloriously elegant batsman, an exceptional catcher in the slip cordon, and one of the great entertainers in the game. Mark Waugh will be missed.

Australia still has another fantastic crowd-pleaser and a match-winner of a more explosive variety in wicket-keeper batsman Adam Gilchrist, surely among the most valuable players today. And his mind-boggling 206 at the Wanderers, when he put the South African bowling to the sword, was a truly brilliant knock, where the range and power of his strokeplay — he can indeed pick the length in a flash and strike through the line — was awesome.

The West Indies unearthed a good fast bowling prospect in Jermaine Lawson and his six for three against Bangladesh, despite the quality of the opposition, surely was one of the most destructive spells of all time.

If the Australian batting was dominant, the attack was lethal with Glenn McGrath, a mean pace predator, scalping 47 in 10 Tests, bowling with radar-like precision around the off-stump, extracting bounce and probing the batsmen relentlessly. The New South Welshman went past the 400-Test wicket barrier this year and appears to be getting better with age.

If McGrath was deadly, Warne was no less; the leading wicket-taker of the year with 67 from 10. The awesome leggie has shed much weight, but packed more punch in his bowling, spinning the ball viciously across the right-hander's blade, and trapping them with flippers, top-spinners and the wrong 'uns. It is a tribute to his skill and craft that he tormented the Pakistanis in conditions familiar to them. Warne is zeroing in ominously on Courtney Walsh's world record.

The Indians jelled well as a team for most past, had some outstanding individual performances in both forms of the game, and the signs for the future were positive. Rahul Dravid was at his very best with the willow, making runs, and often doing so under trying circumstances and situations, while Sachin Tendulkar went past several major milestones.

India brushed aside Zimbabwe 2-0 at home, travelled to the West Indies, won a Test in the Caribbean after 26 years, at Port of Spain, before Carl Hooper's men rallied to win the series 2-1.

In England, India bounced back following the reverse at Lord's to level the series 1-1, which was a creditable effort. The 2-0 home series victory over the West Indies was hardly a surprise. Skipper Sourav Ganguly led the side well, took some bold decisions, and now has the best win percentage among all Indian skippers.

South Africa's Jacques Kallis was easily the best all-rounder in both the Tests and the ODIs.

Before the series against New Zealand, Dravid had 1226 runs from 14 Tests, with five hundreds, four of them away from home, and the Karnataka batsman's technical purity, temperament and character stood out. Dravid also notched up four successive Test centuries — at Leeds, The Oval (both innings) and Mumbai — with his hundred in Leeds, made on a seaming Leeds pitch, standing out. And, during that English summer, Dravid also became only the second quickest Indian after Sunil Gavaskar to reach the 5000-run mark in Tests.

It was a momentous year for Sachin Tendulkar too, with the maestro winning his 100th Test cap (he was the youngest to do so) at the Oval, overtaking Sir Donald Bradman's mark of 29 hundreds, and collecting 1292 runs in 14 Tests before the Wellington Test.

The stylish V. V. S. Laxman's consistency in the middle order — 957 runs in 13 Tests at 63.80 — skipper Ganguly's exquisite stroke-play in England, Virender Sehwag's explosive ways at the top of the order and Sanjay Bangar's heart and commitment were high points too. However, India is still not entirely comfortable away from home, and it might need to rework on the batting order.

In bowling, senior paceman Javagal Srinath first announced his retirement from Test cricket only to subsequently change his mind, left-arm paceman Zaheer Khan bowled his heart out, while leggie Anil Kumble (who bravely operated in Antigua with his jaw wired) displayed he had some cricket left in him, bowling India to victory at Leeds, and bagging 49 wickets in 10 Tests. Off-spinner Harbhajan Singh went past 100 Test wickets and had grabbed 59 wickets in 11 Tests (before New Zealand), donning the role of a match-winner against West Indies at home, stinging 'em with his spin and bounce.

Bowling is one area, though, where India still has several worries and promising youngsters like left-arm Murali Kartik may have a definite role to play in the future. However, the arrival of the 17-year-old and precociously talented Parthiv Patel as the 'keeper must be a comforting thought for all Indian bowlers.

The South Africans were routed by the Aussies and have a batting line-up that can be quite vulnerable under pressure situations. However, the Proteas are still are a competent side, as they proved against Sri Lanka. And Jacques Kallis remains a pillar of strength as an all-rounder of skill, heart and much strength. Easily, the best all-rounder in the business, with New Zealand's Chris Cairns still bothered by injuries.

The strokeful Herschelle Gibbs got the runs at the top of the order in both forms of the game, had a new partner in the left-handed Greame Smith — the experienced Gary Kirsten came No. 3 — but the middle-order needs to be better organised, and the void created by Daryll Cullinan's omission has still not been filled.

In bowling, the great Allan Donald said goodbye to Test cricket — the World Cup will be the final hurrah of this gladiator. Skipper Shaun Pollock bowled with skill and heart, produced a couple of vital innings, while paceman Makhaya Ntini, with his responsibilities increased, sent down some lively spells.

The highlight of the year for Pakistan was a mind-boggling 329 by Inzamam-ul-Haq against New Zealand at Lahore; when in mood, big Inzy can be such a sensational player. Yet, threat of terrorist strikes at home kept the international teams away from Pakistan, forcing much cricket to be played on neutral venues.

New Zealand came back well to level the series against England at home, a series where Nathan Astle made that incredible 222 at Christchurch. And then Stephen Fleming's men scored their first series victory in the Caribbean, where Scott Styris came of age as an all-rounder, and Shane Bond made a terrific impact as a genuinely quick, attacking bowler.

The star performer for England was opening batsman Michael Vaughan, who, without compromising on his correct ways, gathered a remarkable 1325 runs in 13 Tests at 60.23, while his opening partner, the fluent Marcus Trescothick, also had a fruitful year.

For Sri Lanka, Muttiah Muralitharan was once again amongst the wickets, his nine for 51 in the Kandy Test against Zimbabwe was an outstanding piece of bowling, but a shoulder injury to his non-bowling arm hampered him somewhat during the middle of the year.

Aravinda de Silva, a giant of a cricketer, sauntered through to a double hundred against Bangladesh at home, but announced his retirement from Test cricket. Skipper Sanath Jayasuriya had a pretty ordinary year, while wicket-keeper batsman Kumara Sangakkara came up with a fine 230 against Pakistan in Lahore.

The West Indians unearthed a good fast bowling prospect in Jermaine Lawson, and his six for three against Bangladesh, despite the quality of the opposition, surely is one of the most destructive spells of all time. Shivnarine Chanderpaul (1030 in 13 Tests at 68.67) emerged the key batsman for West Indies as it beat India at home, where skipper Hooper too was in fine form with the willow. Meryvn Dillon took on the mantle of the strike bowler with 46 wickets in 11 Tests.

The limited overs scenario was rocked by the dispute between the cricketers and the International Cricket Council (ICC) over the player contracts and sponsorships, and the ICC Champions Trophy did appear in plenty of trouble. In the centre of the storm were the Indian cricketers who stood to lose the most. However, a settlement at least for the tournament was wrangled out. The Indians had a fine year though, successfully chasing a daunting 325 at Lord's in the NatWest final, and progressing to the final of the ICC Champion's Trophy in Sri Lanka where India, defending, pulled off a `believe it or not' victory over the Proteas in the semifinal.

Sehwag assumed centre-stage as an attacking opener who can fire the team to rapid starts, Yuveraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif made crucial runs and lifted the standards of fielding, and the decision to get Rahul Dravid to keep wickets saved a place for an additional batsman. Zaheer was the pick of the bowlers in the ODIs too, while Kumble added 300 ODIs scalps to his 300-plus Test wickets. Importantly, the Indians went about their business with much passion and pride... as a cohesive bunch.

Pakistan's Yousuf Youhana (1241 in 28 games at 59.10 at the time of writing this piece) was the leading run-getter in the shorter version of the game, while Pollock with 48 scalps, was among the wickets in a big way, swinging and seaming the ball.

The Australians won chasing a world record 326 at Port Elizabeth, Samuels' astonishing unbeaten century in Vijayawada stood out as the finest ODI innings of the year, and in terms of knocking over quality batsmen, Shane Bond's five for 25 against Australia in Adelaide, was the pick. It was indeed a year that had plenty of performers and events.